September 2013

Jewish professional theatre

Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center

Jewish  Museum and Tolerance Center 
September 2013

The history of the Jewish professional theater dates back to October 1867 when Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), a Yiddish-language poet who was quite renowned at the time, staged his comedies at the Iasi city garden, which he had written for this particular occasion  From the very first days of its existence, the Jewish theater, as well as the literature in Hebrew and Yiddish, became the cornerstone of the new Jewish culture. The success and rapid expansion of the Jewish theater indicate that professional dramatic art met the immediate cultural and aesthetic needs that the Jewish community already had at the time. Another reason for the popularity of the Jewish theater lies in its democratic nature: it addressed the audience in its spoken language, Yiddish, which was also one of the most important languages of the mass Jewish culture, and then “high” culture of the Jewish intelligentsia. The Jewish professional theater made its first steps relying on the elements of dramatic art which had already existed in the Jewish community and dated back to traditional culture and has cultivated these elements throughout its entire history. 

This is the reason why the Jewish theater was so closely connected with the authentic national environment, “grew straight from its heart” (as I. L. Peretz put it), and this connection, weaker or stronger, would remain at all stages of its development. 

Having accumulated powerful creative energy, the Jewish theater managed to come to the foreground in the international dramatic art, turned capable of daring scenic experiments which sometimes anticipated or came prior to discoveries of the European theatrical avant-garde. 

The holdings of Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center include a collection of materials on the history of the Jewish theater (photographs, theater programs and playbills) in its main centers – in Russia and USSR, in Eastern Europe (Poland and Romania) and in the United States.

The Moscow Jewish Drama Ensemble (MEDA) was created in the fall of 1962 with the Mosconcert. The founder and the first art director of the ensemble, Benjamin Shwarzer (1892-1979) started on the Jewish stage even before World War I and headed the Moscow GOSET after V. Zuskin had been arrested in the last days of the theater’s existence in the fall of 1949. Other actors of the Moscow Jewish Theater and graduates of the theater’s school who survived the repressions also joined the MEDA’s troupe. 

V. Schwartzer made-up as Schimele Sorocker, “200 000” by The Moscow Jewish Drama Ensemble from the play by Sholom Aleichem

Later, the staff included young actors willing to perform in Yiddish. MEDA considered itself as an heir to Moscow GOSET and S. Michoels and strived to maintain and develop their stage traditions. MEDA’s core repertoire included classic pieces of Jewish drama. Though called a theater, MEDA had neither its own stage nor room for rehearsals. In Moscow, it performed for the most part in a hall of the Sovetskaya hotel and rehearsed in the clubs at the outskirts of Moscow and on the unequipped premises. 

In 1986, MEDA was transformed into the Moscow Jewish Drama Theater Studio. And for the first time since Jewish cultural institutions had been eradicated, it received its own permanent place with halls for performances and rehearsals in the former movie theater at the outskirts of Moscow. 

The Moscow Jewish Drama Ensemble with the Mosconcert. Scenes from “200 000”, play by Sholom Aleichem.
A scene from “200 000”, play by Sholom Aleichem.
Zinovy Shulman as the Butcher Lazar Wolf in the production of “ Tevye the Dairyman”. The Moscow Jewish Drama Ensemble with the Mosconcert. 

In late 1987, director and variety actor A. Levenbuk was appointed the art director. The theater was renamed to the Moscow Jewish Theater “Shalom” which gave up on Yiddish and started performing in Russian.

Iasi is the second largest and most important city in Romania after Bucharest, the home of the Jewish theater. It is here that in 1876 its founder Abraham Goldfaden organized the first professional Jewish troupe. Since that time, Iasi has become a vital center of the Jewish theater, where theater companies from Europe and America went on tours and local theaters staged plays. Founded in 1949, the State Jewish Theater in Iasi was headed by the prominent figure of the Jewish stage with a pre-war track record, director, actor and playwright I. Shwarz (Y. Kara).

The troupe of the theater included many talented Jewish actors who had gained recognition before the war as well as artistic youth. The theater produced plays by classics of the Jewish literature as well as drama pieces on topical subjects. 

The State Jewish Theater in Iasi existed until mid-1970s and was one of the best theater companies in Romania and in Eastern Europe as a whole. 

On the right: Scenes from  “Tevye the Dairyman”. The Moscow GOSET. 1938

I. Schidlo in the role of Commissar Bocharov in “Professor Polezhayev”, from the play “Restless old age” by L. Rakhmanov., 1938
Lia Isaakovna Bugova. After 1934

Before early 1880s, Odessa was the Jewish theater capital of Russia. Later, particularly in 1920s, Odessa regained its prominent position among the centers of the Jewish theaters in the USSR. 

On the left and bottom: scenes from productions by the Odessa GOSET, 1930s

In 1934, based on the variety of theater companies that existed there, the Odessa GOSET was created, first headed by the eminent director Ephraim Loiter. The troupe of the theater included talented actors such as V. Schwarzer and L. Bugova. During the war, the theater was evacuated and merged with the Kharkov GOSET. The Odessa GOSET performed its last play “Freilachs” in its home town in 1948 and was closed down.

Lia (Elena) Isaakovna Bugova

The Belorussian GOSET was founded in 1926 based on the Jewish studio of the Belorussian theater. Just as similar theaters in Ukraine and Moscow, it was one of the largest state Jewish theaters in the national Soviet republics. Director and innovator M. Rafalskiy (1899-1937?, was persecuted for political reasons) was the theater’s art director. Before he was arrested, he had staged a number of performances which made the Belorussian GOSET one of the best theater companies in the entire country; no wonder that the Jewish theater from Minsk won the first prize at the 1930 competition of National USSR Theaters in Moscow. 

Actress Elizaveta Nelson. Left: as Leika in the production of “The Deaf Man”, play by D. Bergelson.       Right: as Scapin in the production of “Scapin” based on the play by Moliere

During the war, the theater was evacuated to Novosibirsk and kept on working despite severe living conditions and no permanent space of its own. At the end of 1946, the theater returned to Minsk, but lost state financing and an opportunity to occupy the place that it once had. In March of 1949, the Belorussian GOSET was closed down, which was a part of the overall campaign to eradicate the Jewish theaters and persecute the Jewish culture during the last years of the Stalin era.

Co-workers of the Belorussian GOSET

The Yiddish Art Theater in New York is one of the most dramatic phenomena of not only Jewish but also international theater art. It was founded in 1918 to be closed down three decades later, in 1950. It was founded and since then headed by Maurice Schwartz (1890-1960) – actor and director, the coryphaeus of the Jewish stage, who also had success playing in American theaters on Broadway and in Hollywood films. 

Elizaveta Nelson as Lisa Shereshevskaya in the production of “Girsh Lekkert”, 1928

The Baku GOSET was founded in 1933 with the Center of Society for Settling Toiling Jews on the Land. The theater’s troupe included some local actors that performed in Russian and Yiddish, as well as young actors from the Jewish theaters of Ukraine that was invited to the capital of Azerbaijan. The Baku GOSET existed until the late 1930s and played a major role in the cultural life of Baku. It also became a professional school for a number of young actors who later worked in different theaters of the USSR. 

A scene from the production of  “Hyatt” by the Baku GOSET
Actress F. Y. Kanevskaya
Actress F. Y. Kanevskaya as Rivka in the production of “Two kuni-lemls”, 1934

Programmes and playbills of the Yiddish Art Theater production  New York, 1930s;

Almost all Jewish theater “stars” had at different times worked in the theater’s troupe, it collaborated with the major stage designers, prominent composers and choreographers. Having adapted and developed the achievements of the European scene, The Yiddish Art Theater was the stage for daring art experiments, had performed a number of grand stage projects and influenced the development of the dramatic art in America.

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